The Thunder dug itself a hole in the second quarter and yet fought and competed its way into a clutch-game situation with a chance to turn the tides in the fourth quarter.
Coming into Tuesday’s matchup, Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault knew that his squad would be tested against a low-error Spurs team who wouldn’t beat themselves. It would take a scrappy, disciplined fight on both ends of the floor for 48 minutes to compete. The Thunder managed spurts of that effort throughout the game, but was unable to string together enough of those possession to pull ahead over the machine-like offense of San Antonio.
“That’s why they’re a good team and have been for so long,” said Daigneault postgame. “They had really low amount of turnovers; they got a shot every time down.”
OKC led by as many as eight points in the first quarter as the Spurs worked to jump-start its offensive rhythm. Lu Dort, who finished the game with 12 points, opened up the game with a 3-pointer in the corner after a beautifully executed play by the Thunder with loads of ball movement. Al Horford added to the initial energy with a demonstration of his versatility as he attacked LaMarcus Aldridge from the perimeter and jammed home a one-handed slam on his way to 10 points for the night.
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) January 13, 2021
However, that pop and verve for the Thunder fizzled as the game went on. San Antonio eventually found its stride offensively behind the initial contributions of Patty Mills who stepped in and dropped seven points in six minutes. Then it was Spurs second-year guard Keldon Johnson who barreled down the floor, aggressively splicing his way to the rim before the Thunder could get set defensively. All 18 of his points in the contest would come from inside the 3-point line. This coupled with the Thunder’s low-efficiency, 31-percent shooting on offense gave the Spurs its first and permanent lead of the game after holding the Thunder to only 17 points in the second.
“When you play a team like that you have to be clicking on all cylinders,” said Thunder guard George Hill. “So when you’re playing a team that’s as good of a systemized team like San Antonio, you have to really be dialed in together.”
The Thunder, whose identity is rooted in competitiveness and fight, didn’t let go of the rope despite San Antonio’s mounting lead. Dort once again opened up the half with a 3-pointer which helped to wedge the Thunder out of its offensive rut. The next three minutes consisted of Thunder players aggressively driving to the basket and either finishing at the rim or picking up fouls which would ultimately tie the game at 54 and set the table for a neck-and-neck battle for the rest of the game.
Led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who didn’t attempt a single 3-pointer in his 20-point night, the Thunder’s effort to generate looks at the rim and play downhill resulted in 50 points in the paint compared to the Spurs’ 36.
“We’re at our best when we get into paint and generate good looks for each other. Easy layup attempts and stuff like that,” said Gilgeous-Alexander. “We’ve still got to play to our identity and that’s touching the pain, whether it be making shots in the paint or moving the ball. That’s our identity, we’re gonna play with every night.”
“That’s just what the game gave us tonight,” said Daigneault. “Tonight we’re obviously able to get to the line a little more and get to the front of the rim. But every night is different, you’ve just got to take what the defense gives and try to find the best shot.
The Spurs held a 100-94 lead with just under four minutes remaining in the game. That’s when the Thunder’s 13-year veteran George Hill worked for four straight points on back-to-back possessions with a trip to the free-throw line and a smooth midrange jumper over Aldridge to bring the game to 100-96 with three minutes left in the ball game.
The margin remained at four points while OKC struggled to capitalize offensively on the Spurs’ empty possessions to close the gap down the stretch. A layup by Mills with 90 seconds left in the game send the gap up to six points and would only grow as the Thunder scored just one more basket in the remaining time.
“We didn’t have the same pop that we usually have,” said Thunder guard Hamidou Diallo. “We stuck in it and we tied it up in the third, but they just kept making pushes.”
“We certainly had our chances but obviously it wasn’t enough tonight to get over the top against a team like that, the way they played especially,” said Daigneault.
Darius Bazley sized up his defender, using a series of shot fakes and jabs to move the opposition’s feet just enough to gain an edge. The second-year forward drove the middle of the lane, euro-stepped his defender and definitively elevated for an authoritative one-handed slam over Dejounte Murray. The basket came at a critical juncture in the third quarter where the Thunder would tie up the game and give his squad a chance to turn the tables.
The Baze way to tie the game. pic.twitter.com/ffWPIHHunf
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) January 13, 2021
The Spurs converted the Thunder’s 13 turnovers into 26 points on the other end of the floor while only committing four miscues of their own. Against a methodical Spurs team who makes very few mistakes of its own, the margin of error for the Thunder was extremely low as San Antonio capitalized on nearly every Thunder misstep.
“We didn’t kick the ball over the gym but they really converted obviously when we did turn it over,” said Daigneault. “That’s the quality team that executes on both ends and doesn’t beat themselves.”
“That’s who we are. We’re going to fight and scratch and claw until the end of the game. Coach always preaches running through the finish line, no matter good or bad. So we’re going to fight for 48 minutes and give ourselves a chance and sometimes you gotta let the chips fall where they fall.”
“Nights like that happen and regardless, we’re gonna fight and try to win and do whatever we can.”
— FOX Sports Oklahoma (@FOXSportsOK) January 13, 2021